As a boy, Matthew Christopher Shepard wanted to be a baseball player — until he discovered choral music.
The founder and artistic director of Te Deum Chamber Choir is now less concerned about pitches and more concerned about pitch.
The early-music branch of his choir, Te Deum Antiqua, will take the mound Sunday to perform Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Requiem, one of the greatest Renaissance choral masterpieces.
Around the age of 14, Shepard, an Olathe East High School graduate, realized that a career in professional baseball might not be in the cards, so he looked at other possibilities.
“I tried to find something else that I loved to do, and that’s when I started exploring music,” Shepard said. “I started to play flute and saxophone and sing in choirs, from junior high on.”
Shepard’s passion took him to William Jewell College, and from there he earned two master’s degrees at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, one in voice and one in conducting. While in college he served as an intern at Village Presbyterian Church, where today he is associate director of music.
“When I graduated in 2003, they hired me to start the youth choir,” Shepard said. “There wasn’t much of a youth choir here before that. Then that job grew, and on my own I started the orchestra and created a position for myself. Then we had an organist leave, and we decided to change things a bit, and they moved me up to associate director of music. I’ve been associate director of music for six years now.”
In 2008, after receiving encouragement from friends and colleagues to start his own choir, Shepard founded Te Deum. There already were many choral ensembles in Kansas City, but Shepard planned for his choir to fill a niche.
“Through a lot of discernment, I looked at the choral music landscape in Kansas City at that time, and it offered a lot of fine things, but it didn’t have an ensemble that was intentionally dedicated to sacred music,” Shepard said. “I had sung in ensembles that almost apologetically sang sacred music, or would sing a Sanctus from a Mass, and associated it with light, somehow, to make it fit a secular theme. I wanted to be able to offer the highest-level sacred music in an unapologetic and intentionally spiritual way.”
In 2013, Shepard started an offshoot of Te Deum — Te Deum Antiqua — a choir devoted entirely to early music. It’s this ensemble that will perform Victoria’s Requiem.
Victoria, born in 1548, was, with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a great champion of Roman Catholic church music at the height of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic church’s push-back to upstart Protestantism. In 1545, Victoria went to Italy to study the Italian style and may have actually studied with Palestrina, absorbing the Italian master’s genius.
“Victoria is considered the Spanish Palestrina,” Shepard said. There’s no doubt that if you have to pick one composer to best represent the Renaissance, you look at Palestrina, but Victoria was making music just as beautiful. I think Palestrina sometimes creates these beautiful arches, but it’s easy to lose the text. In Victoria, you get the impact of the text more dramatically and immediately than with Palestrina.”
Shepard is making every effort to perform the Requiem in context, to create an atmosphere very much like that in which the work was first performed. In addition to singing Victoria’s polyphonic settings, Te Deum Antiqua also will perform the Gregorian chant portions of the Mass that Victoria didn’t set, like the “Dies Irae” and “In Paradisum.”
“We’re even going to have a priest, Father Patrick Perkins from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church downtown, doing a couple of the prayers and the scripture readings that are prescribed for a full Requiem Mass,” Shepard said. “To hear this polyphony in its proper context, its context of worship, to hear prayers read and to hear the chant in between the movements, illuminates all the more what Victoria was trying to do.”
It’s fascinating how often music is mirrored in the visual arts. Victoria’s rich, glowing polyphony is reflected in the deep, dark paintings of Spanish Renaissance masters such as Diego Velázquez, El Greco and Francisco de Zurbarán. Victoria, like these painters, captured the agonies and ecstasies of mankind, and perhaps nowhere more so than in his Requiem. Shepard hopes to bring out these deeper emotions.
“I absolutely am a believer, and if something’s going to express God I think music gets as close as anything,” Shepard said. “It’s a spiritual realm and anybody can connect to it. This music evokes awe. This music evokes wonder. We’re offering an opportunity to sit in a dark, candlelit sanctuary and hear beautiful music, a serene hour to just sit and be.”
The countless awards, British knighthood, critical acclaim and adulation of audiences are all richly deserved by András Schiff, one of the greatest pianists in the world today.
Kansas City can count itself lucky to have the opportunity to hear Schiff in recital two years in a row, thanks to the Friends of Chamber Music.
On Friday at the Folly Theater, Schiff will continue his exploration of the great piano sonatas of Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert.
A highlight of the program is Beethoven’s final piano sonata. The two-movement Sonata No. 32 has been admired by composers from Frédéric Chopin to Sergei Prokofiev. The opening movement is Beethoven at his most passionate, while the final movement is a set of eight variations on a 16-bar theme. Pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Jeremy Denk have compared the highly syncopated third variation to boogie-woogie.
Schiff is also performing Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, a delicious piece of music that he just recorded on fortepiano for the ECM label. The two-disc set of Schubert’s piano music is stunning, but hearing Schiff in person is sublime.
Stars of the Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Program has produced Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Thomas Hampson. The Met obviously knows what it’s doing when it chooses young singers to groom and nurture.
The Harriman-Jewell Series will present the Metropolitan Opera Rising Stars Opera Series on Saturday at the Folly, featuring the latest new faces. Sopranos Janai Brugger and Amanda Woodbury, mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko and baritone David Won willperform, accompanied by pianist Brent Funderburk.
Symphony happy hour
The Kansas City Symphony will get down to brass tacks with a free happy hour concert Wednesday at Helzberg Hall.
“Brasstacular” will showcase the brass musicians of the Symphony performing works by Francis Poulenc, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ingolf Dahl and Oskar Böhme. It’s happy hour, so you can enjoy a drink before or after the concert at the cash bar in the Brandmeyer Great Hall.
6 p.m. Wednesday. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Free. You must reserve a ticket by calling 816-471-0400.
KC Chorale’s new season
The Kansas City Chorale has announced its new season, and in creativity, adventure and audience appeal, it’s worthy of this Grammy Award-winning ensemble and its artistic director, Charles Bruffy.
It begins Sunday with Shirim Yehudim: Music of the Jewish Tradition at Congregation Beth Torah. The concert will be repeated Tuesday at Unity Temple on the Plaza. The program is a traversal of the rich history of Jewish vocal music, from Sephardic folk songs to works by the Baroque composer Salamone Rossi and more contemporary composers, as well, like Ernest Bloch and Paul Schoenfield.
The chorale’s various holiday concerts, which have become a beloved Kansas City tradition, will return. The 2016 offerings promise some interesting concerts, too. Like a program devoted to Irish music, a recent Bruffy obsession, and choral music inspired by Shakespeare.
▪ Shirim Yehudim: Music of the Jewish Tradition. 2 p.m. Sunday at Congregation Beth Torah, 6100 W. 127th St., Overland Park; and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St.
▪ Winter Song. 5:30 p.m. Dec. 10, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4400 Oak St.
▪ A Chorale Family Christmas. 1:30 p.m. Dec. 12, Visitation Church, 5141 Main St.
▪ Hello, Holidays! 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at Rolling Hills Church, 9300 Nall Ave., Overland Park; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 4041 Main St. and 2 p.m. Dec. 13 at Asbury Methodist, 5400 W. 75th St., Prairie Village.
▪ Sláinte! The Music of Ireland. 2 p.m. Feb. 28, 2016, at Visitation Church and 7:30 p.m. March 1 at Asbury Methodist.
▪ Spring Song. 5:30 p.m. March 26 Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
▪ Such a Charm: Shakespeare in Song. 2 p.m. May 1 at Asbury Methodist and 7:30 p.m. May 3 at Unity Temple on the Plaza.
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com.